Is Criminal Intent Necessary For Conviction of a Crime?

The extent to which criminal intent is necessary for conviction of a crime depends primarily on the statutory definition of each individual criminal offense. Nevada has two different categories of crimes for intent purposes: specific intent offenses and general intent crimes. If you face a criminal charge in Nevada, the intent category of the crime significantly impacts how your lawyer defends you against the charge.

In our Las Vegas criminal defense practice at The Gersten Law Firm, attorney Joseph Gersten aggressively fights against all state and federal criminal charges. Your initial consultation and case evaluation are always free of charge.

General Intent v. Specific Intent in Criminal Offenses

Nevada statutes distinguish between criminal offenses that require specific intent and those for which general intent is sufficient to constitute a violation. That distinction affects your criminal defense attorney’s strategy for effectively defending you against a charge. In addition, punishment for crimes of specific intent generally is more severe than penalties for crimes of general intent.

A person charged with a crime of specific intent can defend against the charge by creating reasonable doubt about whether the required criminal intent or state of mind existed. In contrast, a person charged with a crime of general intent cannot successfully defend against the charge by demonstrating that the defendant did not have the intent to commit the crime — the prosecutor only needs to show that the act occurred and that the defendant performed the act.

In either case, the prosecution has the burden of demonstrating the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. With a specific intent crime, that level of proof often is challenging for the prosecution, since criminal intent relates to the state of mind of the defendant. In the absence of statements or conduct by the defendant, a prosecutor frequently has only circumstantial evidence to demonstrate intent. Undermining that evidence is an important goal of a criminal defense attorney.

Examples of Specific Intent Crimes and General Intent Crimes

Whether an offense falls into the specific intent or general intent category is determined by the statute establishing the offense. The most common example of a Nevada crime with specific intent is first-degree murder. The statute defines first-degree murder to include any kind of “willful, deliberate, and pre-meditated killing.”  The defendant’s state of mind (intent) is an essential element of the crime.

Many fraud offenses also require specific intent. Nevada fraud statutes define what constitutes the “intent to defraud.” Since the law defines what conduct and state of mind constitute the necessary element of intent, a criminal defense attorney’s strategy must include attacking evidence relating to intent.

Two excellent examples of general intent crimes are DUI / DUID and drug possession. In both cases, the prosecution does not need to prove intent — evidence of the physical conduct alone is sufficient to secure a conviction if it meets the reasonable doubt standard. Other general intent crimes include assault and battery, as well as all homicide charges other than first-degree murder. Sexual assault is also a general intent crime.

How the Element of Criminal Intent Affects Defending Against a Criminal Charge

In formulating an aggressive defense to a criminal charge, a skillful criminal defense attorney relies heavily on the investigating and analyzing the circumstances surrounding the arrest and charge. What defendants often do not realize, though, is that the defense strategy also focuses intensely on the actual definition of the offense in Nevada statutes, including whether the charge involves specific intent or general intent. Your lawyer must take both aspects into account.

For a specific intent charge, successfully negating the element of intent may not allow the defendant to escape conviction entirely. The conduct still may constitute a different offense that requires only general intent. First-degree murder is a good example. If a prosecutor cannot prove the required pre-meditation for a conviction of first-degree murder, the conduct still may satisfy the elements of a different homicide offense that requires only general intent, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The role of intent in development of a defense strategy illustrates why it is essential to have an experienced criminal defense lawyer defend you against any criminal charge. There is a lot more to defending against a charge than simply evaluating the conduct that led to the arrest. Only a knowledgeable defense attorney has the necessary skill to ascertain and exhaust all the potential routes to defeating a criminal charge, including potential defenses relating to criminal intent.

If you face a criminal investigation or arrest, you do not need to be concerned about whether the potential charges require specific or general criminal intent. However, you should remember that your words and actions might provide evidence relevant to intent as a potential element of a criminal charge. That is one of the reasons why you need to be aware of your rights and assert them from your first contact with law enforcement. Our previous blog post, 3 Guidelines to Follow If You’re Arrested in Las Vegas, details how to protect yourself.

Schedule a Free Consultation with an Experienced Las Vegas Criminal Defense Attorney

If you face state or federal criminal charges in Las Vegas, Henderson, or elsewhere in Clark County, you need an aggressive criminal defense attorney who not only knows how to investigate and analyze evidence but also understands Nevada criminal statutes and local courts and practices. Criminal defense attorney Joseph Gersten has the experience and skill to evaluate your case and develop a strategy to put forward the strongest defense possible.

Your initial consultation is always free-of-charge. Call 702.857.8777 or complete our online form to schedule an appointment.